"I am a digital humanist"

Humanities Computing grad Joyce Yu finds a program and a career that blends both sides of her personality

Donna McKinnon - 18 June 2015

Joyce Yu ('15 MA) calls herself a digital humanist - a description which inevitably invites more questions than it answers. Yu finds no contradiction in the term, fluidly blending her computational skills with her Arts background as a recent grad student in Humanities Computing and in her current role as digital communications strategist for UAlberta's Office of Advancement.

It wasn't always that way. Following the completion of her undergraduate degree in English, Yu struggled to find work that engaged her varied interests. "I was steeped in humanities, but I always had an interest in the digital side," says Yu. "People around me were always counting down until Friday. I wanted to do something else. I've met people who joke about grad school, as if it's a pause on your life, but it really started mine."

As a student, Yu worked as a research assistant for Edmonton Pipelines, a collaborative UAlberta project that looks at various forms of open data, social media and other interactive tools to map and analyze the unique aspects of Edmonton. Yu's interest in digital mapping, especially its ability to find unconventional urban narratives, led her to one of the Pipeline's most fascinating initiatives, #YEGlongday. "We wanted to look at what people do on the longest day of the year," says Yu. The ongoing, one-day crowdsourcing experiment (using the hashtag #YEGlongday) gathers tweets, stories, photos and videos from Edmontonians as they describe their activities over 17 hours of daylight - yielding an immediate and meaningful snapshot of life in a northern city. "We have this incredible power to share everything now, and we don't see it as an oversharing of information or that social media has ruined conversation. It just gives us another facet to tell a story."

Yu's work with Edmonton Pipelines inspired her thesis, The Way We Move: Rethinking City Spaces with User Generated Data, which presents a unique perspective on our urban environment. Using Google Earth and data collected from runners and running apps - over 400 uploaded runs - Yu created a digital map of Edmonton. "I wanted to see what the city structure looked like based on runners, and not on anything else," says Yu. "The city outline looks completely different from what you would recognize as Edmonton! That's an example of what digital humanities can do."

Yu also worked on the latest UAlberta Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), Understanding Video Games, as a research assistant, and is excited by its potential. "It's incredible how many people here and in different countries have touched on the MOOC."

According to Yu, the secret to professional happiness is finding the perfect balance between theory and practice, and she credits the Humanities Computing program for guiding her toward that goal. "They were always doing something cool and fun and new," she says. "It was truly collaborative. The researchers I got to work with, the research groups, they blew me away. I always left with a spring in my step - feeling like there was so much more to think about."

This story also appears in the Work of Arts Blog.